Julian Assange has a paranoid streak, the audience learns from Alex Gibney’s meticulous new documentary, We Steal Secrets. The WikiLeaks hacktivist has long made a habit of changing phones, removing the batteries from them, presumably to prevent them from being traced, and swapping out computers; he claims he’s been wiretapped and tailed; he even alleges that Kenyan associates have been victims of political assassinations. And although Assange’s professional obsession, by his own telling, is the pursuit of truth and justice through transparency, he is personally consumed with a desire for privacy. Given the contradictory nature of its central subject, it’s not surprising that We Steal Secrets is a study in paradoxes.
Defining Assange proves a challenge — he refused to give Gibney an interview, but the night before the limited release of We Steal Secrets, WikiLeaks posted a full transcript of the film, accompanied by commentary that nitpicks everything down to the choice of title. (That, in itself, hints at Assange’s overbearing personality.)
Gibney relies heavily on footage of Assange collected by others, much of which depicts the WikiLeaks founder as physically graceless. We see him dancing alone under a strobe light, hunching over a laptop, wearing zip-up boots with a business suit. Assange’s awkwardness makes him seem less lofty when he waxes poetic about transparency.
One gets the sense that Gibney struggled to pin down exactly what Assange believes. He presents excerpts of Assange explaining his motivations: “I like being brave. . . . I like being inventive. . . . I also like defending victims. And I am a combative person, so I like crushing bastards.”
Australian intellectual Robert Manne describes Assange as “neither a right-wing libertarian nor a standard leftist.” Manne adds: “I think he’s a humanitarian anarchist.” The U.S. Department of State has also called him an anarchist, and in a 2010 profile in The New Yorker, Raffi Khatchadourian writes that Assange “had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution.”
If it’s true, as these writers suggest, that Assange rejects the very notion of legitimate government, then it’s no wonder that he makes little distinction between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies. Gibney notes that Assange, a native of Australia, doesn’t call any country home. Furthermore, if he doesn’t accept the fundamental legitimacy of any state, he can’t accept the legitimacy of political action. Indiscriminate sabotage of power is the logical alternative.
But anarchy flounders because it locates all value in the individual while allowing no real protections for individual rights. The result is brutal, as We Steal Secrets unflinchingly portrays. Viewers get the sense that, fundamentally, Julian Assange’s raison d’être is Julian Assange: He is shown admiring photographs of himself on the A1 pages of various newspapers, and he’s repeatedly described by others in the film as someone with a rock-star personality. He is clearly enchanted with his own celebrity, but incredibly reckless when it comes to the lives of others.
The 75,000 documents related to the war in Afghanistan that he published identified by name about 100 Afghans who had cooperated with the U.S. government; this put them at mortal risk, a fact that WikiLeaks still denies. British journalist Nick Davies claims he raised this point with Assange before the documents’ release. “He said if an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces, he deserves to die,” Davies reports. “He went on to explain they have the status of a collaborator or informant.”